Tag Archives: Centerprise

We Didn’t Win to Have You Here: Activism after Victories in Children’s Lit

Yesterday, French voters went to the polls, and much of the rest of the world watched to see if France would go the way of the US and the UK—that is, toward increasingly isolationist, authoritarian, anti-immigrant governments.  In the end, the majority of voters rejected Marine Le Pen’s ultra-right views, electing Emmanuel Macron instead.  Macron is emphatically described as a centrist in just about every news profile of him; an investment banker who worked as economy minister for the socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Macron is pledging to fight “the forces of division that undermine France” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39841707).  But he has never been elected to anything before, so it remains to be seen how—and if—he will be able to do that.  My first reaction to Macron’s victory was relief that France had not elected Le Pen.  My second was think of a children’s book that warned against the dangers of thinking that right-wing extremism could be ended by a change in regime.

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Anna, in Kerr’s text, came to love France–but not all the French people loved her “kind”.

The children’s book was one that first taught me, as a child myself, about grey areas in politics.  Holocaust literature in general remains popular with young readers because it is “real” history that ordinary children were involved in—and the good guys and bad guys, especially in the books I read as a child, are obvious.  While YA Holocaust literature was more nuanced about the badness of bad guys, books for the under-twelve set typically allied—well, the allies, with each other.  So the French, Dutch, and British were good, the Germans and Austrians were bad.  (And Jewish people typically were just that—Jewish, not British or German or anything else.)  But Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) presented a more complicated picture—particularly of France.  France, in my nine-year-old understanding of the world, was full of good guys who had unfortunately been “overrun” by the evil Nazis in 1940.  Anna and her family end up in France—though neither as a first nor a last resort—after escaping from Nazi Germany soon after Hitler’s election.  A French newspaper employs Anna’s father, and Anna and her brother Max struggle as refugees to learn the language and fit in—but eventually, “going back to Paris felt more like going home than they would ever have thought possible” (148).  Unfortunately, it does not remain that way.  While many French people help Anna’s family, not all the French are “good guys”.  In fact, their landlady becomes increasingly difficult, eventually lashing out at them by saying, “Hitler knew what he was doing when he got rid of people like you!” (177) and, ominously, “The government should have had more sense than to let you into our country!” (177).  The landlady is French, but sympathizes with the Nazis—not after the fall of France, but several years before it.  My childhood understanding of history fell apart.

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In Carlson’s book, it is the children–not the adults or the institutions–that can see beyond race and build community.

But although my sense of history may have undergone some reorganization, I did not lose the belief that children could play a tangible role in bringing about social and cultural change, or that they could learn how to do this through books.  A less historical—though not by any means ahistorical—picture of French anti-racism can be found in an earlier book, written by American Natalie Savage Carlson who lived in Paris for several years.  A Brother for the Orphelines (1959) may seem, like A Bear Called Paddington, to be set outside time in the unpolitical world of childhood.  But Carlson’s book, published in the midst of the Algerian anti-colonial struggle against France, concerns the rescue of an Algerian orphan by the French orphelines from abandonment.  The well-intentioned orphelines bring the Algerian boy to a “world where the ceiling is leaking and the walls are falling in” (33) because the government doesn’t care about repairing the orphanage; and even the kind orphanage managers squabble over where the “dark-skinned” baby originated.  The orphelines, on the other hand, focus on community, defending their home and “feeling offended at the way the grown-ups were acting as if the baby were different because he was dark-skinned” (32).  Carlson’s text is not problem-free—there are typical orientalist descriptions of the adult Algerians, for one thing—but the orphelines see the Algerian baby as just another child who needs a safe and happy home, and take it upon themselves to secure one for all of them since they can see that the adults and institutions that surround them are either indifferent or prone to casual racism that would divide the orphans into “us” and “them,” deserving (white) children and undeserving (not-white and “foreign”) children.

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Centrist or no, Macron still governs a France that, at least in part, fears the flood at the door.

Kerr and Carlson wrote as adults, and Carlson especially created “ideal” children in her book; but that is not to say that real young people do not understand the consequences of nationalism tied to indifference and racism, whether institutional or individual.  In 1979, the community publisher Centerprise published teenager Savitri Hensman’s book of poems, Flood at the Door, which discusses the racist and anti-immigrant attitudes he faced in 1970s England.  One of these poems, “World War Two,” has echoes of the themes found in both Carlson’s and Kerr’s books.  Hensman writes, “‘We didn’t win to have you here,’/ You say, and flaunt the Union Jack” (8).  The separation between “we” and “you” is a false dichotomy, Hensman argues, when he writes in the next line, “But by your side we fought” (8).  A false dichotomy with real consequences; the poem that follows is about an Asian being stabbed and kicked to death by racists who tell him “to go back” (9) where he came from.  The police do nothing.

While Macron won, Le Pen still received a third of the votes cast.  And this means that while Macron argued that “France” won the election, there is another France that does not agree.  The France of Le Pen, like the right-wing extremist element in America or Britain, is not powerless to affect the day-to-day lives, or indeed the laws and policies, governing ordinary people in France.  That is why activists and children’s authors must continue to fight injustice no matter who is in power—because we didn’t win to have racists here.

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Words of Danger, Words of Power: Radical Bookstores and Children

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One of the longest-running Black British bookshops, started by John La Rose; the George Padmore archive is above the shop.

I have a collection of about 1000 children’s books specifically related to the Caribbean and Black Britain. They date back to the 1700s, but the bulk of them come from the twentieth century. This collection started when I discovered the radical Black bookstore, New Beacon, in London. New Beacon opened in 1966, and their children’s collection included both new books and impossible-to-find-anywhere-else books, pamphlets, educational texts, posters that they had offered for sale since the early seventies. Many of the items had been available for Black British supplementary schools, after-school or Saturday programming that aimed to solidify necessary skills as well as teach the history and literature that the mainstream British schools ignored. I could find anything here, from a 1971 poetry anthology to introduce secondary school students to poets like Martin Carter, Edward Brathwaite and Derek Walcott, to a Black History poster from around 2010 highlighting famous (and not-famous-enough) Black Britons. The major chain bookstores in Britain often kept new Black British titles only a few months at most, and even they usually only stocked such titles in London or Birmingham. If I had been out of the country when a book first appeared, I knew I would have to get to New Beacon. I spent tens of hours and hundreds of pounds there from the time I discovered it in the late 1990s.

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I bought AN Forde’s 1971 anthology of (mostly Black Caribbean) poets at New Beacon for two pounds, sixty-nine pence.

By that time, New Beacon was one of the last remaining Black British bookstores in London. During the 1970s, New Beacon was one of many Black and radical community bookstores; others included Bogle L’Ouverture Press founders Jessica and Eric Huntley’s Walter Rodney Bookshop, Centerprise in Hackney, and the Peckham Publishing Project. All of these sold children’s books designed specifically to connect African, Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, and Black British children to their roots. Often, the bookshops encouraged radical activity, particularly with the rise of the National Front in the 1970s. Bookshop owners John La Rose and the Huntleys, for example, organized marches against the police after the New Cross Fire. The community bookshops published books from members of their community. Centerprise published the poems of Hackney schoolchildren, and Peckham Publishing Project produced (among other books) Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus, a book about a child with dreadlocks that I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog. In a hostile climate, Black British and radical community bookstores were safe havens where children could learn about their own history, culture, and place in British society.

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Young Black Britons might know Malorie Blackman and Benjamin Zephaniah, but this poster I bought at New Beacon also introduces them to the first Black Briton to write his life story, Briton Hammon.

The tradition of the Radical Black Bookstore is not, of course, just a British one. Recently I came across a children’s book that celebrates the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem. The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (Carolrhoda 2015) is Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s tribute to her great-uncle, Lewis Michaux, who started the bookshop in the 1930s. The bookstore’s exuberant façade is captured in pictures by R. Gregory Christie, in which it is clear that Lewis Michaux was influenced by thinkers such as Marcus Garvey. His bookstore influenced others as well, both the ordinary reader and the famous, and Micheaux Nelson discusses visits by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. And through the viewpoint of the young son of the bookshop’s owner, Micheaux explains both the history of oppression of the African-American community and the need for African-American-specific bookstores. The young narrator tells a story familiar to anyone connected with books and the Black community: “When Dad went to a bank to borrow money to open a bookstore for black people, the banker said no. He said Dad could have a loan to sell fish and chips or fried chicken, but not books. The banker told him, ‘Black people don’t read’” (n.p.)

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Black Bookstores do so much more than scratch a book itch, as Micheaux Nelson’s book attests.

The banker might have told Michaux that some in white society prefer it when Black people don’t read. When Michaux finally gets his bookstore, his son comments that every time he looks out the store window, “There are some squad cars . . . Dad jokes, ‘Anytime more than three black people congregate, the police get nervous’” (n.p.). Michaux’s experience of the suspicion of white society is mirrored in other Black bookstore owners; the Huntleys’ Walter Rodney Bookshop, for example, was regularly sprayed with racist graffiti, and according to Margaret Andrews, “Racist material including National Front literature and animal excrement were pushed through the letterbox” (Doing Nothing is Not an Option 137). But despite the surveillance and the racist attacks, Black bookstores in the US and the UK stayed open through some dark periods in history because, as The Book Itch concludes, “WORDS. That’s why people need our bookstore” (n.p.).

Michaux’s bookstore closed in 1975, according to his great-niece. “In 1968, the area of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue was chosen for construction of a new state office building. Some felt that officials had purposely targeted this site to disrupt bookstore activities. Lewis was forced to relocate his store . . . It remained open for several years until Lewis received notice from the state that he was being evicted”. Washington DC’s Black bookshop, Drum and Spear, had closed a year before Michaux’s. The Walter Rodney Bookshop hung on until 1990, by which time rental costs in London had begun their sharp climb upwards, and years of the Thatcher government had reduced funding for multicultural initiatives.

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R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations make it clear that Lewis Michaux had no intention of hiding his radical ideas, even when the police were right around the corner.

John La Rose’s New Beacon bookshop made it until their fiftieth anniversary, but now they too have closed their bookshop doors (they continue to maintain the George Padmore Institute Archives on the bookshop site, 76 Stroud Green Road—and it’s a vital archive of post-Windrush Black British history). For decades, the Black bookstore has provided history, culture and radical politics to populations that often have nowhere else to go to access these things. As we enter a new political era, I would argue that these spaces are more needed than ever. If you have a Black, radical, or community bookshop near you, no matter what your own background, go patronize it today. That bookshop’s existence may save the life of or provide the support for a young reader who will grow up to challenge our increasingly unequal society.